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Courtroom Etiquette 101: Speaking to Judges

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Nothing is more upsetting to many practiced litigators -- or judges -- than hearing someone address the bench with "Judge."

The person in the black robe and gavel-ready is probably by all means a "Judge," but anyone who doesn't want to be considered a rank amateur should remember the following:

Address Seated Judge as "Your Honor" or "The Court"

It really is like nails on a chalkboard to hear opposing counsel say "Judge, I object!" And although it may be a small matter to some, it's important to develop good courtroom habits for your legal career.

So, since Emily Post didn't write a chapter on attending your first trial, make sure to follow these rules:

  • Never call a judge "Judge." Whenever you speak in open court -- and especially when it's on the record -- refer to that robed man or woman seated slightly higher than everyone else as "Your Honor" or "The Court." Alicia Florrick violates this rule often on "The Good Wife," but that's why it's such a compelling drama.
  • Don't speak over a judge. Not only is speaking over others insanely frustrating for the court reporter, judges don't like it either. Even if a judge has just issued a wildly idiotic ruling, hold your tongue until you can be heard clearly on the record.
  • Always ask to approach. Though you shouldn't abuse this privilege, it's best to politely ask a judge to approach the bench if you have a matter that needs not to be aired in open court. Running up toward the bench will get you yelled at by a bailiff.

Be Pleasant As Punch in Panels

The situation becomes slightly trickier when you are faced with speaking before a judicial panel, but just remember to:

  • Give appropriate eye contact. Don't stare a hole in the head of the judge or justice who asked you a question. Try to give eye-love to the whole panel.
  • Use a measured oratory style. As the Supreme Court of Ohio reminds practitioners "the Supreme Court is not a jury," so it's best to avoid any Perry Mason or "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"-style rhetoric.
  • Let panel members interrupt you/each other. This part is always jarring, but you must let the judicial panel bring you to a screeching halt -- even mid-sentence -- to ask questions, interrupt each other, or make comments. Don't get rattled by it. Take a deep breath and try to answer one issue at a time.
  • Use proper titles. "Your Honor" never goes out of style, but when addressing specific members of a panel, make sure to use the proper title (e.g., "Chief Justice Roberts").

And if any judge or justice reprimands you -- even if it's for improperly wearing a tie -- apologize by saying "I apologize Your Honor" or "I beg the Court's apology."

Then collect your heart from your stomach and carry on.

Editor's Note, February 7, 2017: This article was first published in January, 2014. It has since been updated.

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